Traditional Indian Saw




This rusty looking hand saw is actually a precision cutting tool


Hobbyists sometimes tend to spend thousands of rupees on power tools, some they end up barely using, which in my view is a little wasteful given that a cheap hand tool with a little practice can often be an equally versatile and accurate instrument. Hand tools have several other advantages as well: they are safer than power tools, much quieter and do not require complex jigs for different tasks.

Indian woodworkers have traditionally used cheap but well-designed hand tools for years to produce quality furniture. Contrary to popular belief, developing skills in hand tools do not require hundreds of difficult hours of practice. A good teacher, proper technique and a good quality (does not mean expensive) hand tool are all that is required.

A basic tool, the hand saw, can make incredibly precise cuts of various kinds, including the precise ones required for tenons and dovetails. However, like all tools, the hand saw too needs to be tuned properly for use.

The two things that need to be tuned in a hand saw are its “set” and its teeth. The “set” of a saw is the extent to which its teeth are twisted to away from the centre of the blade. A saw with all its teeth flush against the blade will barely cut. The set of the blade depends on the type of saw – rip or crosscut – and can be set pretty easily. The teeth are “tuned” by sharpening.

I thought a hand saw tune up would be a complex business until I saw a traditional woodworker doing it. To set the orientation of the teeth, he used an old hand plane iron in which he had cut a small notch. He expertly twisted each tooth – one left and one right – ever so slightly.

Adjusting the set of the teeth

He next squatted on the ground and holding the saw tightly against a wooden hand plane proceeded to sharpen each tooth with a triangular file. He did it so fast that the job was complete in a few minutes.

Filing the teeth

The hand saw was now perfectly tuned and deadly sharp. I tried cutting with the saw but found it very difficult. Then the carpenter said that I was doing it the wrong way; these saws he said cut on the pull stroke. I am used to working with Western style saws that cut on the push stroke and had never encountered anything like a traditional Indian saw.

He showed me how to cut gently but firmly on the pull stroke. His cut was to the line and incredibly precise because of the thin kerf of the saw blade. I realised that traditional Indian saws are much like Japanese saws that cut on the pull stroke and usually yield a straighter cut because pulling the saw tensions the saw blade and keeps it dead straight during a cut. No wonder Indian woodworkers can cut so well with a traditional hand saw. And the best part is the cost of the saw – about a hundred rupees!

Indranil Banerjie
1 March 2013

Comments

  1. Thank you very much for this post.

    I have seen this saw in the market and overlooked for a funny looking tool.

    Now I know the potential of this tool, I will go ahead and acquire one right away.

    Thanks
    ./tbucks

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  2. Hi Indranil,

    I'm a relative new enthusiast and building up a tool box. I'm planning to buy a hand saw. Need help in buying one.

    1. Will the off-the-shelf hand saw ('aari') need setting. If yes, how can I set it myself. You mention, that it needs different setting for rip and cross cut. So the normal indian 'aari' fit for rip or cross cut?

    2. Should I invest in a circular saw. As of now, I'm not working with wood or plywoods over 1 inch of thickness.

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  3. Manish: Setting a saw is a complex business as far as I know and it is not easy to do. Traditional Indian carpenters with experience can do it and it is best you take it to them for setting and sharpening. As to whether traditional Indian saws are for rip or cross cutting, I am not sure. They seem to do both with one saw. I will try to find out.
    As for buying a circular saw, I personally do not think it is essential to kick start your hobby. Others might differ. I feel that you should also get a hand plane and a few chisels, learn to tune and sharpen them, and then start making stuff. As you go along you will realise that you need some tools and not others. It is a personal thing, in my opinion. Best wishes, Indranil.

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  4. Thanks Indranil,

    so what are my alternatives? I need to cut few plyboards for a multipurpose rack. So should I take them to a professional and assemble at home?

    Fyi, this is my DYI project

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  5. Manish: Buy a decent hand saw. You should not have to set or sharpen it initially but, if you can, the cut will usually be better, cleaner and more accurate. With plywood it does not matter whether it is a cross cut or a rip saw. Mark your plywood pieces accurately, saw along the line carefully with your index finger pointed ahead on the saw grip. Assemble using white glue (Fevicol PVA glue) and screws. Apply the finish of your choice.

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  6. Hi

    i am a non talented DIY enthusiast from Goa. Since I discovered this blog, I have really enjoyed reading this.

    Mr. Banerjie Sir, hats off to you.

    My question now is this, whenever I go to a hardware shop, albeit in Goa, and ask for a tenon saw, I get blank looks. Am I calling it wrong, have they stopped making these saws, am I going to the wrong shop for them?

    Where can I buy tenon saws or it's equivalent?

    Umaji

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  7. Umaji: Thanks for your great comments! Unfortunately, woodworkers in India do not use a wide range of saws and do not seem to have specific names for different kinds of saws. You will not get a tenon saw. Try to find a local dealer for Stanley tools; you might then get a Stanley backsaw which would be the closest thing to a tenon saw. Else, look for a smallish saw with rip teeth. Best of luck.

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  8. Mr.Indranil Banerjie, thanks a lot for sharing how Indian carpenters sharpen and set a saw. I have recently bought a new rip saw (Not a back saw) just for fun. I remembered your blog on saws and sharpened the saw and set the teeth as described in your blog. Guess what , it turned out pretty good, so good that it had the tolerance of a company sharpened and set saw. It is not a complex procedure as you think it is. This was the first time I ever sharpened and set a saw and all it took was less than 1 hour. That includes making a tool for setting the teeth. I simply took a hack saw and made an indent into an old wrench which i used for setting the teeth. All it needed was a delicate touch.

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    Replies
    1. Wow! That sounds terrific. To this day I have hesitated to sharpen a saw but after reading your comment feel I will give it a try. I wish you would post some photos of the tools and the process to indian.woodworker@gmail.com with a little more detail about how you went about it. This would help us all. Best wishes.

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